Borderlands 3 TVHM + Season Pass 1

FBT is back in Borderlands 3. Moxxi made him do it.

I hated BL3. It was everything the original set out to destroy, a smug AAA game playing it safe for the franchise. If Borderlands was a meme-sharing Redditor, BL3 is a corporation using their memes to appeal to the kidz; which is exactly what the appalling social media parody villains, the Calypso Twins were. God I hate this game.

But, I’ve played every Borderlands (even Legends) and all the DLCs. I gotta do the Season Pass; BL3 was already DLC-like with the planet-hopping but some of the series’ best moments happened in the DLCs – just look at General Knoxx or Tiny Tina’s efforts. Classics. And I should give BL3 another chance. Here comes True Vault Hunter Mode…

The Calypso Twins have not aged well and it’s not even 2 years old. At least in BL2 you could love to hate Jack, but not only are the Twins out-of-date caricatures, they’re badly written and crap villains. Genuinely annoying, they drag everything down - not that the rest of BL3 is shooting very high. Its repetitive, even for a Borderlands game, but not once does it push, refresh, or otherwise alter the Borderlands formula; sure, if it strayed too far it wouldn’t be BL anymore, but this is B-side bollocks that feels like a first draft. The majority of the characters, missions and moments are pure dad-joke / dad-dance cringe. It’s got none of the wit or that deranged, dangerous, life is meaningless tone of BL1 or 2. It’s just a bad comedy.

But, if you’re just after more BL then BL3 does come into its own in TVH mode, much like Pre-Sequel did. Once you’re making some serious money, gaining brutal weapons and the skill trees get spicy, it all comes together shooty-wise. Most of the creatures feel like reskins of BL originals but the Jabbers are better than I remember, even if they feel like a rip-off of the Rippers from Shadow Warrior. Playing as Fl4k and unlocking my pet’s ability to revive you really opens things up and I actually start to warm up to BL3, at least when fighting. Then the Calypso’s rock up and spoil it with their terrible jokes and boring main plot. How did a BL game make raiding Vaults a chore?

I guess the rot set in with BL2 when you saw your BL1 mercenary elevated to hero and we saved the day intentionally. But BL2 was good, it was funny, thrilling, unfair. It turned BL1 up to 11 and ended by promising BL3 would be a rip-roaring scramble to open vaults and enjoy the riches, a mad scavenger hunt. Instead, BL3 throws the Calypsos in the way and thinks it has substance, tries to expand the whole Vault, Eridian, Siren thing into some epic story-arc. Like we ever cared. We’re Vault Hunters, we don’t ‘run toward the danger’ - leave that universe-saving to Commander Shepard; I’m here for money, fame and guns that talk back.

By the end, while I’m infuriated by the Twins, the bad jokes, the unimaginative missions and the bloated, cliched plot, I have to admit … BL3 still my least favourite Borderlands. Can the DLCs change my mind?

The first DLC released, Moxxi's Heist of the Handsome Jackpot, has my beloved Moxxi tasking the Vault Hunters with taking back her casino, which Handsome Jack stole. They must have had a brutal breakup given he also destroyed her Underdome and she had us ruin his replacement. Hell hath no fury...

The casino, a giant space station, is gaudy and brilliantly laid out, stuffed with insane fights and ridiculous side missions that get more ridiculous the further you go. Moxxi has us round up a collection of folks living in the Casino to mount a heist on Jack’s personal pleasure tower and reclaim the place, and it’s as absurd and that-will-never-work as you’d expect.

This is more like it. Without the Calypsos we’re back to petty squabbles and self-enrichment. This is what BL3 should have been – a smash n grab that spins wildly out of control. It even has a whiff of Bioshock about it – the casino locked down when Jack died, so everyone who was playing the slots got trapped and formed into gangs just like the Splicers, we link up with Pre-Sequel’s Timothy the Jack Double who is the only one who can access Jack’s office just like Bioshock’s Jack, we’re helped by a guy who represents the working classes like Atlas and the big bad is a Ryan-looking, Fontaine-style mob villain who communicates on screens. Bioshock and Borderlands together at last? Oh this perfect.

Although we’re only ever in the casino it feels big and constantly changing. The fights are all great shootouts, the plot zips along and the dialogue is hilarious – was this actually a BL2 DLC they forgot to release? And there’s so much money rolling around – smashing fruit machines for cash (be careful) is what Borderlands is all about.

Handsome Jackpot is a really good, clever, funny, insane DLC that is exactly what you want from a Borderlands. There's even a tiny Interstellar nod, I think. And there’s lots of Moxxi, who Timothy-Jack continues to make a fool of himself over. Same. I was hoping she’d join in as a side character but she’s mostly just directing from a far. Always out of reach…

Guns, Love and Tentacles sees the Vault Hunter travelling to Hammerlock and Wainwright’s wedding on a planet home to the corpse of a gigantic, Cthulhu-style Vault monster – which is worshipped by a cult led by Eleanor whose husband was ‘absorbed’ into the still-beating heart of the creature, and from where he can possess bodies to reunite with his missus; and of course picks Wainwright as his next possession… I was already enjoying this one when it suddenly got better – Gaige, my preferred Vault Hunter from BL2 is now a wedding planner (!) and sidekick for many missions.

GL&T is just good fun. Lots of creepy towns and forests to fight through, tons of even weirder than usual NPCs thanks to the cult’s influence, and some solid horror references – including the obligatory Evil Dead nod. Its one of those DLCs that’s as much fun to look at as it is shoot through. It’s similar to Zombie Island of Dr. Ned and TK Baha's Bloody Harvest, with some Borderlands-style Lovecraft touches – like tentacles rising out of toilets… Borderlands always did great fantasy-horror art design, and it’s brilliant here.

Besides the usual beasties, there’s the “Bonded”, forms of possessed beings and people under Eleanor’s control and they are brutal, including ones that can reanimate fallen comrades – that’s all we need in Borderlands, having to kill things twice.

GL&T is also pretty heart-warming. Both Hammerlock and Wainwright join us for separate missions and admit to worries and fears about their pending nuptials, leading you to convince each they’re perfect for the other as the bullets fly. You can also pick up recordings detailing Eleanor and her husband’s history, giving them a more tragic backstory than you’d expect. Putting aside the humongous number of bullets you’ll get through, under it all is a really sweet little game. Love conquers all. Except those goddamn Empowered Khel tanks.

So that’s two solid DLCs, both of which have gone a long way to redeeming BL3. Up next, Bounty of Blood, an Asian-infused Western that has us looking to claim the bounty on a group of outlaws. Westerns have always been the backbone of Borderlands, and now we’re making like a proper bounty hunter in the wildest west? Get in.

Get out. This one really had the potential to top BL2’s Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate's Booty. It’s similar – bad-ass female villain, opportunity for weirdness in an isolated, scorched setting, but it’s just a one-dimensional bad guy (well, gal) attempting to release a bio-weapon to take over the planet – not only is that a tired, over-used plot but it’s basically BL2’s plot. And no idea why she’s obsessed with taking control of a ruined planet with one ghost town on it. Or why she needs a Vault-sized monster to do it.

Even with the blossom trees and Japanese architecture (which again reminds me of Shadow Warrior) it’s generic nothingness. Now this is a BL3 DLC. There’s just no real quirk to it, and while its rarely funny, it’s not serious enough either to be the dark entry it thinks it is. Other than an underground cave sequence with the beautiful and deadly Bellik and a Jurassic Park in-joke, there’s little that stands out or feels much different from the main game. It’s a real shame because this had the potential to dial Borderlands back to its cray-cray roots. It should have been High Noon Borderlands style, instead it’s bedtime. Meh.

And finally, Psycho Krieg and the Fantastic Fustercluck – in a mash-up of Pre-Sequel’s Claptastic Voyage and BL2’s Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, the Vault Hunters are convinced by Tannis to enter the mind of BL2 Berserker Krieg and discover why every Psycho she’s ‘probed’ has a hidden memory she dubs ‘Vaulthalla’… and we agreed to this because Tannis promised we can keep all the guns we find in his imagination?!

Although this doesn’t have the emotional heft of Assault On Dragon Keep, Fustercluck did occasionally buzzsaw me in the feels. I’m not that keen on learning the background of Psychos (partly because it’s a painfully unoriginal origin story), but we have a great time helping Krieg’s split personalities come to terms with each other; ‘Sane Krieg’ just wants out of their head, but ‘Psycho Krieg’ has buried some secrets deeper than either of them realised. Their symbiotic relationship is touchingly explored as we visit key memories from their past and confront the loss of Maya; her kindness was the only thing they agreed on.

Action-wise this is perhaps the most varied of all the DLCs – and the main game. It leans into the Mad Max Fury Road influences (and a totally random Matrix nod), but as we explore each part of Krieg’s mind, we battle Loader Bots, Bandits, COV, Hyperion soldiers in surreal, twisted realities, like mini-DLCs within the DLC within the main game inside one head with two personalities. Meta. And there’s evil versions of Vault Hunters, revealing how Krieg’s fractured mind wouldn’t allow him to form friendships. There’s also a train – the one at the start of BL2 when Kreig first saw Maya - that can appear mid-fight to send you flying, before we have a boss battle; a boss is a train? How did this awesomeness end up in a DLC?!

I’ve never played BL2 as Krieg, but next go, I will. Why his story (and Krieg himself) was relegated to a DLC rather than the main game, especially after what happened to Maya is one of many BL3 questions I have for Gearbox. Fustercluck doesn’t reinvent the Borderlands wheel, but it shows where the series is actually capable of going. Insane, emotional, and original, not to mention a solid shooter with some grand set-pieces - is that so hard?

So, is the DLC collection worth getting? Yeah, totally – it’s interesting that the DLCs rely so heavily on previous BL characters and events – struggling to contend with your forebears, BL3? Moxxi is pure BL1 insanity, Hammerlock is a sweet diversion, Fustercluck is an example of what BL can do when its heart is in the right place and Bounty of Blood is good for grinding and farming at least. Just a shame you have to buy the main game to play them. Season Pass 2 is a con, just reworked arena fights and a new skill tree. I’ll wish-list it… but those DLCs are a great addition to BL3; even if they triggered me to play BL1 and 2 instead.

If, like me, you didn’t click with BL3 first time but you’re thinking of a replay, it doesn’t get any better. Your time’s better spent in BL1 or 2 – or PS for that matter. I didn’t expect BL3 to innovate, but it could have doubled-down on what BL1 and 2 did – those games took Torque’s question to heart - "I am here to ask you one question, and one question only: EXPLOSIONS?" Since the original there’s been tons of games aping its mayhem and BL3 feels like one of them instead of a BL game. If BL1 was amused at itself, BL3 is just pleased with itself. Like Torque, BL3 sold out for 12 dollars and a high-five.